Bread was generally not served with most meals in my home when I was growing up, although I can still hear my grandfather saying, as we sat around the large family dining table during the holidays, “bread is the staff of life,” or something close to that.
It wasn’t until much later in my early adult life that I developed an appreciation for a good loaf of artisan baked bread instead of the mass-produced prepackaged breads that line the grocery store shelves. I often go out of my way to find well-made breads, developing sources both locally and even sometimes ordering bread from online bake shops. From my perspective, the better the bread, the better the dish!
Bread should be eaten within the first couple of days after purchasing, or can be divided, if the loaf is large enough, and frozen so you can enjoy it over time. With this in mind, when the remainder of a loaf reaches a point where it begins to dry out and becomes a little harder I repurpose and freeze it for later use in dishes such as the recipe to follow. I also grind it for breadcrumbs, use it in soups, such as ribolitta or pappa al pomodoro, for croutons in a salad or soup, or the main ingredient in that holiday stuffing. Like the man said—“staff of life.”
Instead of cutting the leftover bread into perfect little squares, I tear it into irregular, ragged shaped pieces. Some edges get charred when lightly toasted, which adds more flavor to a dish. The irregular shapes and sizes allow for some pieces to get crisper than others, making the bread more interesting. And, even if a recipe calls for removing the crust, I never do, because the crust adds another dimension to the overall flavor and texture of the dish when bread is added.
Around this time of the year, as we approach the holidays when family and friends gather together for meals large and small, I find I always have a good stash of torn, repurposed bread pieces in my freezer. Over the years I have prepared a large roasting pan filled with a savory bread pudding that was always a more interesting substitute for a holiday stuffing or a starchy side dish. But I seem to recall that perhaps only once did I ever prepare a bread pudding as a dessert, and it seems so long ago that I don’t even remember exactly what all of the ingredients were that I used. So the motivation behind this post was to revisit that, and develop a recipe where I could use all the stashed bread in a dessert.
Reading through my cookbooks I gathered ideas, ingredient combinations, and approaches leading to the recipe I am sharing with you in this post. Fundamentally, I wanted the recipe to be easy to prepare and assemble, using mainly ingredients found in most home pantries, not too sweet, be “very” rustic when finished, and fun for the kids to help with.
“Very” Rustic Bread Pudding
Ingredients (serves 8 to 10)
12 generous cups bread pieces
5 large apples, peeled, quartered, cored, quarters halved then thinly sliced across into smaller pieces. Yellow Delicious apples were used in this recipe, although Honey Crisp, Granny Smith, or Fuji would all be fine substitutes.
Zest and juice of 1 large lemon
12 tablespoons sweet butter + more for the baking pan + topping
2 whole cinnamon sticks
3 generous tablespoons brown sugar
¼ cup grappa, Nonino grappa il merlot was used in this recipe, although any other grappa, vodka, or limoncello would work just as well.
¼ cup finely chopped candied orange rinds (optional)
1 cup walnuts, or pecans, or a mix of both, lightly toasted and rough chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla beans
4 large eggs
3½ cups Half & Half
Generously butter and lightly flour a 9 x 13 baking pan and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 365 degrees.
Finely zest the lemon and set aside. Juice the lemon into a large work bowl along with the apple pieces prepared as previously described. Using your hands, toss and coat the apples with the lemon juice. Sprinkle the brown sugar over, then toss and coat the apples again.
In a large sauté pan, melt 3 tablespoons of butter over moderate heat. When the butter sizzles and begins to lightly brown, add the apples, cinnamon sticks, and grappa, stirring to coat and combine. Raise the heat and cook the apples, stirring often, until most all the grappa has cooked off and the apples are lightly caramelized.
Discard the cinnamon sticks and set the pan aside to cool.
In a small saucepan, melt 6 tablespoons of butter and set aside.
Using the same work bowl, add the torn bread pieces, the lemon zest, and the finely chopped candied orange rind, if using, and pour the 6 tablespoons of melted butter over. Mix to thoroughly distribute the zest and rind. Add the cooled apples along with the chopped nuts and mix again.
Whisk the eggs, Half & Half, and vanilla beans until combined, then pour the custard over the bread and apples, mixing again so that the bread is thoroughly coated and begins to absorb the liquid.
Pour the mixture into the prepared baking pan and distribute evenly. If the bread appears to be a little dry, add another ½ cup or so of the Half & Half, pouring it around evenly.
Dust the top with 2 generous tablespoons of sugar, and dot with 3 tablespoons of butter cut into ¼-inch-square pieces.
Place the baking pan on the center shelf of the preheated oven and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour until the pudding is set and some of the bread has some charred edges.
Allow the pudding to rest and cool on a rack before cutting and serving. Best served warm and accompanied by a spoonful of whipped ricotta, crème fraiche, or Greek yogurt, along with a spoonful of your favorite jam or preserve. I plan to try one of my homemade preserves, either green tomato and lemon marmalade, blood orange marmalade, or Italian plum jam. A rich apple butter might be a nice option as well.
This is a rustic dessert to try for the holidays, making good use of what you have on hand in the pantry and without a lot of fuss. Do give this recipe a try.
Be well. Eat Well.
Good food doesn’t have to be complicated. One of the best things about cooking is that it is an on-going learning experience.